The Story of a Young Woman
by Ose Utomi
Edited by Julia Rios
There’s a story we first began to tell long ago, before the time of your Greatmamas, and their Greatmamas before them, before the Queens of the Kudu, before the Asundrance. A story of gain and sacrifice. A story of words that give life and whispers that kill. A story that will hollow out your heart and fill it, tear your spirit at the seams and mend it whole. The only story you’ll ever need to hear.
Gather ’round, for this is a story of unlikely beginnings. About a babe born of the Osankpho, Obas of Talking Mountain and smallest tribe of Arobhi. She was born stuttering in a barren diamond quarry, feeble as failing light, but with eyes like smoldering coals. She was fated to die that same night, and yet she disobeyed death and grew and grew and grew.
This is a story of fear. Even as a child she knew that she wasn’t like the other Osankpho. She was dragon-marked, claimed by the gods of fire in a tribe sworn to the gods of the earth. There was fire in her belly and flames leapt from her mouth when she laughed. Love came only from her father. He protected her from the barbed tongues of her schoolmates, from the men who hurled stones and the women sly with poisons. When she cried he held her, and when she stuttered he was patient, and when he fell ill and died in her 15th year, she was alone with just a belly full of flame.
Gather ’round, for this is a story of power. She learned that she was not cursed, but in fact blessed, and she embraced her blessing. The fire in her belly straightened her spine, gleamed behind her eyes. It lined her tongue, scorched the stutter from her lips, kissed her words and carried them like smoke to fill whoever she spoke to. As she grew, her words earned her reverence. On the day of her womanhood, the Osankpho who had so hated her chose her to be Speaker of Talking Mountain, where she would speak for All Tongues Lost.
This is a story of love. The young woman’s love for her people. Her love for her ancestors. Her love for a young man who could be any shape and yet always chose to be kind. He would walk a dozen miles each morning to sit with her at the foot of Talking Mountain, and he would change into anything he could to make her laugh, and her laughter would warm him the way two cold hands can warm each other.
This is a story of betrayal. The young man’s mother remembered the young woman as just a stuttering babe, a powerless thing. The mother could not speak as powerfully as the young woman, but she could whisper. When the couple was wed, the mother went to her new daughter and whispered cold into her mouth. It slid down the young woman’s throat, past her chest, into her belly, where it turned the fire to stone. With her fire gone, the villagers, like wild animals, attacked. They had never loved her, only feared what she was capable of. The Osankpho beat her and the young man alike, tore their skin, pounded their bones, destroyed their home and set fire to their corn.
Sit and be merry as I tell you a story of hopelessness. The young woman and her husband fled the village. He took the shape of a large ram with the legs of a zebra, and she sat atop him as they crossed the land in search of somewhere better. Sand blinded them, storms befell them, jackals gnashed their heels, and her prayers to her gods of fire went unanswered. One day, the young man’s legs buckled and he collapsed. He was exhausted, and sick from drinking unclean water. The young woman cared for him for ten days before he died in his sleep, with his head against her belly, shivering.
Close your lips and open your hearts for this story of a young woman who traveled the known world in search of her place, and the stone in her belly that was not a stone—for cold can never fully extinguish a flame—but was instead a seed. This young woman with unquenchable life within her who, after months of being cracked and dry, finally crawled into the unfamiliar land of the Vespami, Governors of the Endless Lake, most powerful of the Western Houses. How could she know the Vespami worshipped the gods of water and were sworn to slay all those dragon-marked? How could she know how much her dignity would be diminished, how fiercely they would hunt her?
How could she know that her greatest pains were yet to come?
Thus begins the only story you’ll ever need to hear. Listen now, as I tell you this saga of triumph, this most ancient and perfect of tales: